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New freedoms to support England’s high streets have been introduced

New rules allowing commercial premises to be converted into homes came into force on 31 March, as part of a package of measures to revitalise England’s cherished high streets and town centres.

The new rules, announced by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, will help support the creation of much-needed homes while also giving high streets a new lease of life – removing eyesores, transforming unused buildings and making the most of brownfield land.

The package also introduces a new fast track for extending public service buildings. New rules allow for bigger extensions to existing public buildings including schools, colleges, universities and hospitals. This will help deliver more classrooms and hospital space by enabling them to extend further and faster, as we emerge from the pandemic.

Allowing unused commercial buildings to be changed into homes will encourage more people to live near local high streets and come to the area for work and leisure, helping cement our high streets and town centres in their rightful place at the heart of communities. The new homes will be delivered through a simpler ‘prior approval’ process instead of a full planning application and will be subject to high standards, ensuring they provide adequate natural light and meet space standards.

Currently, public buildings can have small extensions without the need for a full planning application. However, the changes mean they would be able to extend further and faster, helping to quickly deliver more classrooms and hospital space.

The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP, said: “We are creating the most small-business friendly planning system in the world to provide the flexibility needed for high streets to bounce back from the pandemic. By diversifying our town and city centres and encouraging the conversion of unused shops into cafes, restaurants or even new homes, we can help the high street to adapt and thrive for the future.

“The public also want improvements to public services as quickly as possible and so these changes will also help schools and hospitals to adapt quickly to changing needs with a new fast track for extending public service buildings.

“This announcement supports a series of recent measures introduced to help high streets recover once lockdown restrictions are lifted which include:

  • £56m Welcome Back Fund to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns.
  • Relaxation of planning rules to allow pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways.
  • Planning freedoms to allow outdoor markets, marquees, pop-up summer fairs without the need of a planning application.
  • Longer opening hours for retail to give shoppers more flexibility and ease transport pressures.
  • Extension of provisions for temporary pavement licences to facilitate alfresco dining.

“The new measures also include:

  • Amendment of existing permitted development rights for ports so that they have the same freedoms as airports for undertaking development.
  • Amendments to the demolition permitted development right to ensure the removal of unlisted heritage assets is subject to due process and proper consultation via planning.”

The government is now introducing legislation for England to bring forward this right from 1 August 2021. The right will allow for local consideration by the local planning authority of specific planning matters through the prior approval process. These considerations include:

  • Flooding
  • Impacts of noise from commercial premises
  • Provision of adequate natural light to all habitable rooms
  • In conservation areas only - consideration of the impact of the loss of the ground floor Commercial, Business and Service use
  • Impact of the loss of health centres and registered nurseries on the provision of such local services.

The right also includes a vacancy requirement that will ensure the building changing use has been vacant for three months before the date of the application to protect successful businesses in these premises. A size limit will also be included of 1,500sqm offloor space being able to change use under the right, in order to focus on medium sized high street sites, which are more likely to be suitable for conversion.

To prevent gaming, the building must have been in Commercial Business and Service use for two years before benefiting from the right. Where there is an existing Article 4 direction on 31 July 2021 in respect of the change of use from offices to residential (under Class O) it will continue to have effect on equivalent development in respect of offices (now within the Commercial Business and Service use class) until 31 July 2022.

Details on public service infrastructure PDR
To support the faster delivery of important public service infrastructure the government has amended an existing permitted development right to allow larger extensions to certain infrastructure.

This amended permitted development right will allow for the extension, erection or alteration of school, college, university, hospital, and for the first time prison buildings, by up to 25% of the existing footprint of the cumulative buildings on the site, or 250sqm, whichever is greater. The existing height restriction on new buildings is also being increased from 5 metres to 6 metres.

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