Planning Reforms Part 1: Change of Use and Land Zoning

Last month, the Government published “Planning for the Future” – a consultation paper designed to radically reform England’s planning regime. The aim is to streamline and modernise the planning process, improve outcomes on design and sustainability, reform developer contributions and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed.

Across a special three-part blog, we take a detailed look at the proposals, some stakeholder reactions and what the future could mean for neighbourhoods, development land and our town centres. In this part, we will focus on how use classes are changing and how new land zones will be designated for future planning decisions. 

Our population continues to grow and within that, the number of households needing property – up from 16.6 million families in the UK in 1996, to 19 million in 2017, a 15% increase in this timeframe. At the same time, house building has not kept pace and while last year 240,000 homes were built (a marked increase on previous years) it has not reached the Government’s 300,000 per annum target.

So, the Government has been wrestling with a planning system that has not been fit for purpose, council planning officers whose morale has been at an all-time low and a failure to be able to house our population effectively, with all of the social injustices that flow from that. The time is ripe for change and the pandemic has thrown this into stark relief.

Changes to Permitted Development Rights and Use Classes

The first changes were announced by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in July related to Permitted Development Rights (PDR). Under rules due to come into force in September 2020, owners and developers will be able to convert a wider range of commercial premises, such as offices, cafés or shops, into homes without needing planning permission or local authority approval. Previously such permissions had been restricted to conversion of office buildings.

The rules however, will not apply to buildings that are considered “essential to the lifeblood of communities” with pubs, libraries and village shops listed as examples.

Owners and developers will not need to apply to demolish commercial buildings if they plan to rebuild them as residential properties. This right will allow free-standing vacant and redundant commercial and residential buildings to be demolished – and rebuilt as residential use within the footprint of the existing building. This new right is intended to boost the number of homes built, but will not apply in some locations, such as national parks and conservation areas or to listed buildings.

Use Classes have also Changed: Classes A, B1 and D1, applicable to retail, office and non-residential institutions and assembly and leisure uses respectively, are removed and new ones introduced in their place. The new Class E encompasses commercial, business and service, while the new F.1 and F.2 apply to learning and non-residential institutions and local community use respectively.

The new Class E allows for a mix of uses to reflect changing retail requirements. It will allow a building to be used flexibly by having a number of uses taking place concurrently or by allowing different uses to take place at different times of the day. Changes to another use, or mix of uses, within this class will not require planning permission.

There is criticism that the greater use of PDRs could lead to a wave of poor quality, tiny flats being crammed into commercial buildings lacking amenities and green space. COVID-19 brought to the fore the importance of local green spaces and high quality, affordable homes to enable more people to reach healthier outcomes, especially in urban areas. But it also accelerated the decline of high street retail with the further shift to online. These changes to PDRs could encourage the swift conversion of vacant retail units to flat developments along our high streets, as consumers change their relationship with town centres.

Back to Centralized Zoning

In 2011, then Secretary of State Eric Pickles implemented the Localism Act which was designed to release Whitehall’s centralised grip on local planning policy. The aim was to allow councils to implement their own plans without edicts. Pickles regarded such edicts as a “national disaster that robbed people of their democratic voice, alienating them and entrenching them against development” – therefore stalling the process and contributing to a regular failing to meet targets. Well, in the intervening years not a great deal has changed and so further reform has been needed to ’Get Britain Building’.

The response in the latest Consultation Paper is to divide England into three zones:

  • Growth areas suitable for “substantial development” and where outline approval for development would be automatically secured for specified forms and types of development
  • Renewal areas suitable for some development, such as “gentle densification”
  • Protection areas (e.g. National Parks, AONBs) where development is to be restricted.

New homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices would be allowed automatically in ‘growth’ areas. In ‘renewal’ zones, largely urban and Brownfield sites, proposals would be given ‘permission in principle’ subject to basic checks. Green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty would be protected.

It comes with a new streamlined process designed to reduce red tape and harness technology to deliver homes more rapidly, with Ministers assuring there would be no dilution in building standards.

Promotion of “Beautiful Developments”

Elsewhere design codes will be created to reflect the local character of an area and ensure that homes meet a stronger requirement for more attractive developments that fit into their setting.

There has been recognition that “identikit” developments across the country have done little to enhance the visual appeal of suburbs, often sited close to rural fringes that have jarred with areas of landscape quality.

Connected with the 25 Year Environment Plan and the concept of Biodiversity Net Gains, is the principle that developments need to provide improved social justice for residents, address climate change through lower carbon footprints and promote schemes that contribute greater sustainability.

It rightly places the need to acknowledge the environment more centrally in the planning system and provides a real opportunity for developers to step up and support mitigation of climate change impacts through measures like Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) to combat flood risk.

It also hopes that this extra “beauty” code will address concerns about build quality from the relaxation of PDRs.

Will Zoning work?

This zoning approach will re-centralise power rather than spread it to local people and local councillors using a standard method for setting housing requirements and standardised templates. It flies in the face of all of the effort and focus on the localised thinking behind Neighbourhood Plans, although the consultation has said they will be retained. The question arises though that if local communities don’t want significant development in their area will their neighbourhood development plans and their voices be heard?

Jenrick has said local people would get a “meaningful say” at the start of the planning process, when local plans are drawn up, but will not be able to block new schemes after that.

He claimed local people “did not have a great deal of influence” over the current planning system and that few people engaged with it. So, has anything really changed here?

One of the key issues will be whether local residents see and feel that there is a “development free for all” especially in transitional urban areas marked for renewal. These may have the easier ride through planning. Coupled with changes of use from commercial office blocks to residential flats, population densities and related traffic and parking issues may develop in areas that were previously unaffected. This could be a significant change that existing and prospective residents need to take into account as these new rules started to be enacted.

In the next edition of our Planning Reforms three-part blog, we will look at the main proposals in the “Planning for the Future” consultation and review what this could mean in terms of housing deliverability and the role of brownfield land in achieving this.


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