Planning Reform 2020 – a different (Use) Class

It’s been a busy year for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and it looks as if there might be a busy time ahead for those in the planning industry, as professionals up and down the country start to grapple with the potential short, medium and long-term consequences of the government’s proposed radical shake up of the planning system.

While the “Planning For The Future” White Paper has stolen most of the headlines, the changes already made to the planning system this year are significant on their own, not least the changes made to the Use Classes Order, which took effect from 1 September 2020.

The most notable change is that familiar high-street uses such as: retail, certain professional services, café and restaurant uses (previously use classes A1 – A3); certain office, R&D and light industrial uses (previously B1(a)-(c)); and certain community/leisure uses (from what was D1 and D2) are now all rolled together into a single new Class E.

Now, as a general rule (exceptions will apply in some cases), planning permission will not be required for material changes of use between any of these uses. This gives landowners, developers and business owners a huge degree of flexibility whilst marking a significant reduction in scope for local planning authorities, who may be concerned about changes of use over which they will now exercise very little (if any) control.

The government’s explanation is that these changes are designed to help high-street and town centre locations keep pace with the rapid change in the type and mix of uses that we are starting to see in these locations. However, the changes apply across the whole country and so will include large out-of-centre office and retail parks, for example. Whilst no-one can deny that high streets and town centres will (and arguably need to) adapt to meet evolving community requirements, these changes may have unintended consequences across towns and cities.

There is not yet any published guidance to accompany the new use classes regime, but already a large list of planning questions is mounting in terms of the possible “unintended consequences” of the reforms. For example:

  • What does this mean for local plans? Will it render certain policies out of date? How, for example, is one now supposed to conduct a sequential test?
  • What does this mean for the NPPF? Will that now have to be rewritten?
  • To what extent will local planning authorities be able to “disapply” the operation of the Use Classes Order on the grant of new planning permissions by way of condition or s106 obligation?
  • What sorts of assumptions will now need to be included for the purposes of Environmental and Retail Impact Assessments?
  • What about adopted CIL charging schedules? Will they now need to be amended?
  • How is the new flexible use class to be reflected in leases, for permitted uses and on rent reviews?

We await both government guidance and what will undoubtedly prove to be an interesting flurry of appeal decisions in order to fully gauge how we are all now expected to operate in this new landscape. Time will tell whether the flexibility granted to landowners and developers delivers the rejuvenation and adaptation of town and city districts which the government intends and whether this leads to redevelopment in ways not intended/desired by local authorities.

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