Our most recent blog post summarised some of the key impacts that Covid-19 has had on our town centres, including changes to town centre planning policies. Whilst the potential changes proposed as part of a new Planning Bill continues to dominate headlines, these policies have already been adopted and are reforming our approach to planning town centres.

One of the most impactful planning reforms of the last year has been the consolidation of a number of separate Use Classes under a single ‘Commercial, Business and Service’ Class E – link here.

This update to the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 (the ‘UCO’) in July 2020 came into effect in September 2020.  It combines shops, restaurants, offices, gyms and nurseries (amongst others) that no longer require planning permission to switch uses.

Then, in March 2021, an update was made to the General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (the ‘GPDO’). This allows for the change of use from Class E properties to residential from August 2021 (extending a right that had previously been restricted to office uses) – link here. This permitted development right is subject to maximum size requirements, the property having been in use as Class E for 2 years and vacant for 3 months. Also, an application to the Council for ‘Prior Approval’ for limited consideration of impacts related to transport, contamination, flood risk, noise, the provision of natural light, and the potential effect of providing residential accommodation within an industrial area. Further limitations apply in Conservation Areas and for nurseries, as well as in areas covered by ‘Article 4 directions’ where the rights do not apply.

Article 4

Article 4 directions are issued under article 4 of the GPDO, and allow for Councils to withdraw permitted development rights from defined areas. However, after notifying the Secretary of State of their intention to make an Article 4 directions, the Secretary of State can intervene and modify or cancel an Article 4.  This would occur if they do not feel it is justified as they have done on a few notable occasions in the past. They can be immediate (taking effect within a year of being issued, but liable for compensation to landowners) or non-immediate (taking effect at least a year after issue, but not liable for compensation).

This takes us to 20th July 2021, where the latest update to the National Planning Policy Framework (‘NPPF’) introduced new limitations on the use of Article 4 directions (Paragraph 53). The new text significantly narrows the areas in which it is justified to introduce Article 4 directions, limiting Councils abilities to control development within their boundaries.

These updates to Paragraph 53 were first put forward in the January 2021 consultation for draft revisions to the NPPF. However, the final updates differ from the initial consultation in a couple of key areas. The text recognises that the loss of the “essential core of a primary shopping area” could result in wholly unacceptable adverse impacts on an areas vitality and viability. This is the Government’s first acknowledgement of the potential for the permitted development rights to undermine the health of centres in the NPPF. The updated text also introduces a requirement for ‘robust evidence’.

On the one hand, this can be seen as good news for Councils looking to protect vulnerable centres. Protection of the vitality and viability of a high street or town centre against the adverse impacts of change of use is now listed as justification for issuing an Article 4 direction.

However, the updated text introduces two key questions: firstly, how can a Council define an essential core, and secondly what constitutes robust evidence. We will go on to discuss how Councils may start responding to these points in a following post.

Regardless of ongoing discussions about how a new Planning Bill will ‘rip up’ the system with algorithms and zonal planning, planning reform is already well underway on our high streets. Changes over the last year have taken a new approach to planning town centres across the country, with less intervention and oversight, and it will be fascinating to see how they respond.

A version of this article appeared in The Planner.

Authored by

James Singer, Associate Director