Under the snappy title: ‘Planning Reform: Supporting the high street and increasing the delivery of new homes’, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is consulting on a series of new permitted development (PD) rights which could making it easier to change the use of buildings.

Karl Elliott, Managing Partner of Clague Architects, believes the changes, if given the green light, have the potential to bring about positive change for many towns and their economies.

The consultation is proposing new PD rights to allow existing premises in typical high street uses to change, allowing more leisure and community uses such as gyms, libraries, health care, and office use, as well as homes. The possible planning changes could also include upward extensions, shop-to-office conversions, as well as the demolition of commercial buildings.

Karl Elliott said: “Many of our town centres have seen considerable change over the last few years, with retailers hit by rising rents and business rates, falling footfall, and competition from online sales. It is important that town centres can change in order to make them more attractive as destinations.

“The prospect of raising £400m from a 2% digital services tax may have been a major headline from the Budget, however the reality is that in terms of the high street it all seems too little, too late.

“The internet genie is out of the bottle and gobbling up not only the independent retailers, but also causing major challenges for the longstanding anchors of our town centres.”

However, the team at Clague did see much to welcome in among the Chancellor’s announcements and those of his fellow Ministers later on Budget day.

Karl Elliott said: “The demolition of commercial and residential redevelopment is the least positive part of the proposals for the high streets. There is the danger that it could be used a shortcut to delivering housing numbers in locations that are needed to serve a wider civic function.

“We do welcome the greater scope of change of use, and the increase in time-limited short-term change of use for pop-up shops, etc, will allow greater flexibility and will see the high street begin to realign itself to new patterns of community use.”

In addition, the consultation proposes allowing property owners to use the airspace above existing buildings for new homes and extensions without detailed planning permission.

Although historic town centres designated as Conservation Areas are exempt from PD, there is a need to be cautious elsewhere in order to safeguard against widespread unsympathetic residential redevelopment.

Karl Elliott added: “The Government is right to be considering further changes to the use of existing buildings.

“Planning needs to respond to local needs. However, politicians must avoid being seduced into thinking that there’s a one-size-fits all solution based on their experience of the London property market.

“There’s a danger that simply looking to build upwards could be little more than a magic beanstalk approach to planning, not offering local solutions and detracting from our town centres. What might work for London, probably won’t work for Canterbury, Chelmsford or Chester, when it comes to being sensitive to the historic fabric of our towns and cities.

“Reviving our town centres is not going to be easy. How we design new building or repurpose old ones, needs to focus on the experience people want from spending time in our town centres and that could include returning to a time when people literally ‘lived above the shop’.

“Canterbury offers a vibrant cultural experience for the visitors thanks to the combination of its retail, leisure and heritage offering. However, many buildings are vacant above the first floor and could be sensitively converted to new uses to help support the local economy.

“The key will be bringing together those parties with an interest in the future of the town centre to create the change we all know is needed, and that must include retailers, the business community, landlords and the local authorities to have a shared vision.”

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