Two key changes have set in motion ambitious (and well overdue) planning reforms by Government to provide greater flexibility for commercial uses, and to overhaul the planning system… all it took was a pandemic!
The first significant change is the Use Class Order Amendments which will see the amalgamation of a number of retail uses together with offices to create a new “Commercial, Business and Services” use. Where a change of use would have previously been required, these uses can change lawfully without needing to apply for planning permission. Setting aside the somewhat complicated transitional arrangements (perhaps the 1st of September 2020 will be the next Y2K but for planning uses…), I’m most interested to see what happens to the value differential for retail units in town centres and what the market will decide in terms of how our high streets and retail centres are diversified.
I have always felt that Class A1 is somewhat antiquated and has been clung onto as this nostalgic idea of the UK being a ‘nation of shop keepers’, where high streets should be primarily made up of the butchers, the bakers and the candle stick makers. As we all know, the structural decline in retail and the rise of online shopping was in motion before the pandemic, which has significantly accelerated that decline. I think the changes will be more substantial outside of London, but for the Square Mile, once people start returning to the office (even if not in the same capacity, or as regularly as previously) there is still going to be a demand for eating and drinking out, health and fitness and some shopping uses. I think it’s positive that this is going to be more market-led and less restrictive for occupiers, owners and users of retail space.
The second significant change is the Planning White Paper which seeks to re-write and expedite the planning process and change how planning decisions are made at the local level. In general, the proposals would see a greater centralisation of planning with a national grouping of land into three categories; “protection”, “renewal” or “growth”. There has been much criticism that the current system takes too long and hasn’t delivered housing quickly enough. Whilst I think some of that criticism is unfair, reform to the system is long overdue. Simplification of processes like strategic environmental assessments so that they are more focused on outcome rather than process is a definite benefit.
We expect that in practice this will mean development sites will need to be promoted and seek community consultation earlier on in the plan making process, with the aim being faster planning decisions down the line. One challenge that this new system places on the built environment is the ‘protect’ designation which looks set to cover significant areas of the City and wider Central London due to heritage designations, which may be more restrictive for intensification of sites than under the current system.
The White Paper focusses primarily on delivery of housing to achieve 300,000 new homes per year which would be set at the national level and distributed across England. For London, this could see increases in housing targets although this doesn’t take into account constraints and a consultation on methodology is being carried out in parallel to the White Paper. The White Paper also recognises that Local Authorities need to be well-resourced to improve outcomes from the system which is welcomed.
There are some radical changes proposed to how planning deals with design, infrastructure funding, sustainability and the plan making process, all of which look interesting although may not necessarily be the best approach for Central London. Only time will tell. Without covering all of these in detail, my thoughts are that in the short term these changes could cause greater uncertainty and may delay the planning process while everyone gets to grips with to the changes, particularly decision makers. I completely support the speeding up of plan making which the White Paper suggests should take just over two and a half years in most cases. While the principle of the Use Class Order amendments is something which should be supported, the detail is perhaps more complex than necessary, and if this is an indication of what’s to come, these changes may take longer to start working as intended.
The impact that this more centralised system has on London is going to be interesting to watch, particularly the role of the London Plan and protection of heritage assets. Despite some scepticism, I hope that the long overdue reforms end up providing more flexible and faster outcomes for towns and cities. I look forward to working through these changes.